Main Engine Cut Off

Airbus and OneWeb Awarded Blackjack Contract

Airbus PR, with some big news for this interesting DARPA program that I’ve been keeping an eye on:

Airbus Defense and Space Inc. has been awarded a contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a satellite bus in support of the Blackjack program.

DARPA describes the Blackjack program as an architecture demonstration intending to show the military utility of global low-earth orbit constellations and mesh networks of lower size, weight and cost. DARPA wants to buy commercial satellite buses and pair them with military sensors and payloads.

This contract positions Airbus Defense and Space, Inc., of Herndon, Va., and its strategic joint venture partner, OneWeb Satellites, of Exploration Park, Fl., as the ideal service providers for Blackjack.

In the last few years, we’ve seen a handful of small satellite production lines open up. Those production lines have mostly been for internal programs, but at least a few have said they want to sell buses, as well. This is a big step in that direction for Airbus and OneWeb.

It Was Boeing, But Boe Ain’t Going

NASA announced a crew change for Starliner’s Crew Flight Test:

NASA astronaut E. Michael “Mike” Fincke has been added to the crew of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner’s Crew Flight Test, scheduled to launch later this year.

Fincke takes the place of astronaut Eric Boe, originally assigned to the mission in August 2018. Boe is unable to fly due to medical reasons; he will replace Fincke as the assistant to the chief for commercial crew in the astronaut office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

DARPA Launch Up Next for Rocket Lab

Jeff Foust for SpaceNews:

Rocket Lab announced Jan. 22 that it will launch a small satellite for DARPA on the company’s Electron rocket from its launch site in New Zealand. That launch will take place in February, likely late in the month, Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck said in an interview.

The payload is a satellite developed by DARPA called Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration (R3D2) that will test technologies for deployable antennas. Once in orbit, R3D2 will deploy a Kapton membrane that will expand to a diameter of 2.25 meters to demonstrate the ability to small satellites to carry large deployable antennas needed to support high-bandwidth communications.

Apparently launch responsiveness is a focus here, as the timeline from design to launch is approximately 18 months.

I’ll say this about Rocket Lab’s upcoming stretch of launches for 2019: they have a lot more United States Department of Defense launches then you’d expect. Should be a fun year.

Oh, and one more quote from Beck:

Beck is among those who expect to see a shakeout in the small launch industry in the near future. “I think it’s going to be an interesting time ahead for the hundred-plus small launch vehicles that are under development within the industry right now,” he said. “I think you’re going to see some fairly strong consolidation over the next 12 months.”

I said damn near the same thing in this week’s podcast—let’s see if it plays out that way.

T+108: Layoffs and Launch Sites

I wanted to spend some time breaking down a few news items from last week that may be leading indicators of trends for 2019: layoffs at Stratolaunch, Tethers Unlimited, and SpaceX, and Relativity signed a lease for Launch Complex 16 at Cape Canaveral.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 35 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd the Everyday Astronaut, Frank, and six anonymous—and 216 other supporters on Patreon.

Relativity to Operate Cape Canaveral Launch Complex 16

Eric Berger, Ars Technica:

Under terms of the competitively awarded agreement, the site will officially be a “multiuser” facility for five years. However, if Relativity meets certain milestones and begins regularly launching rockets, it will be able to convert the agreement into a 20-year exclusive right to use the launch site.

The site will be able to support launches to low and mid-inclination orbits, but Ellis said the company will need a second site for missions to polar and sun-synchronous orbits. He said the company is conducting a search for such a site but didn’t mention specific locations under consideration.

Relativity has to be bummed out to miss out on Vandenberg’s SLC-2W, which Firefly is taking over now that Delta II’s days are finished there.

Maybe Relativity can take over the inactive SLC-3W pad at Vandenberg. That was last used in 2004–2005 when SpaceX planned to use it to launch Falcon 1.

Astranis Signs First Customer

Caleb Henry, SpaceNews:

Pacific Dataport Inc. of Anchorage, Alaska, will lease capacity on the satellite through a long-term contract worth “tens of millions of dollars,” Astranis CEO John Gedmark said in an interview. Astranis will own and operate the satellite.

The satellite, so far unnamed, will cover the entire state of Alaska, including the Aleutian Islands, with Ka-band connectivity for broadband, according to officials from Astranis and Pacific Dataport.

Gedmark said the satellite’s design calls for a mass of 300 kilograms — substantially smaller than typical geostationary satellites weighing several thousand kilograms, but still enough to provide meaningful capacity. Astranis will build the satellite in preparation for a launch in the second half of 2020, he said.

It will technically cover the entire state, sure, but the high latitudes and rugged terrain of Alaska will present challenges in some areas.

Once Pacific Dataport is up and running with service in Alaska, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them expand with a handful of satellites in Molniya orbits. While non-stationary orbits bring other challenges—specifically in the area of antennas—three satellites can provide 24 hours of coverage for high latitudes, and terrain becomes much less of an issue.

Rough Few Months at Maxar

Caleb Henry, for SpaceNews, on the past few months at Maxar, including the departure of their CEO, who was replaced by DigitalGlobe’s president:

Investors punished Maxar in October when the company reported a net loss instead of the profitable quarter the company had forecast. Maxar’s stock took a beating again last week after the company announced that WorldView-4, a high-resolution imaging satellite launched in late 2016, had suffered a potentially mission-ending hardware failure.

Maxar’s stock, worth around $52 a share six months ago, was trading at $5.83 a share when markets closed Jan. 11.  Shares were up slightly in mid-day trading Jan. 14 following the news of Lance’s departure.


T+107: Chris Gebhardt

Chris Gebhardt of NASASpaceflight joins me to talk all things SpaceX: Starship and its upcoming hopper tests, DM-1 and the government shutdown, and more.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 34 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd the Everyday Astronaut, and six anonymous—and 213 other supporters on Patreon.